First appointed Minister of State for the development of the food industry in 1987, and holding that post for five years, the late Joe Walsh went on to serve as Minister for Agriculture and Food for 10 years (1992-1994 and 1997-2004.).
Upon his retirement in 2004, he noted that there were few other government departments with such a wide remit, encompassing complex international and national negotiations, major legislative initiatives, major financial responsibilities, food safety and consumer protection demands, as well as the requirement to lead the development of our main natural resource industry.
Irish agri-food exports quadrupled, since his first appointment, and Walsh oversaw the strongest ever growth in Irish farming productivity, as the agricultural workforce declined by 17.5% in nine years, from 1991 to 2000.
Ireland transformed from a predominantly commodity exporter reliant on intervention to a sophisticated agri-food industry, with hugely increased exports of finished products and consumer foods.
He became one of the longest serving agriculture ministers on the EU Council of Ministers, in an era when Ireland as a member state, and the Irish team of negotiators in agriculture, foreign affairs and other disciplines, gained the strong respect of their EU colleagues.
Europe’s huge surplus production of milk, grain and beef, which emerged around 1980, had led to world trading partners demanding controls to protect world markets.
The milk quota was the first response, but it was 1992, Walsh’s first year as minister, before Europe really knuckled down to reducing EU price support, and compensating farmers with the “cheque-in-the-post”, still in place 22 years later, still worth about €1.2bn per year to farmers.
The BSE scare in the UK in 1996, mushroomed into a huge test for Irish agriculture. With markets closed to Irish beef, 500,000 head of Irish cattle had to be incinerated in 2001.
The successful fight to win back consumer confidence saw exports of beef to the EU market hit record levels in 2003, and prices for beef cattle reach a six-year high.
Foot and mouth in 2001 threatened 19 million susceptible animals in Ireland, requiring immediate and decisive action to contain an outbreak in Cooley, Co Louth.
Joe Walsh’s leadership has been recognised internationally, with the French government honouring him with the Legion d’Honneur and the King of Spain presenting him with the Grand Cross of the Agricultural Order of Merit for his service to agriculture.
“However, despite the international recognition, I know from talking to him that in his own mind few honours could match his induction into the West Cork Hall of Fame in 1992,” said Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin in his tribute this week.
In June 2003, Minister Walsh was Ireland’s negotiator in the most radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy since its inception. He became the first EU Minister to decide to fully decouple direct farm payments from production. This complete break in the link between agricultural production and support payments was the most extreme policy change option allowed under the Luxembourg Agreement CAP reform.
Modernisation of the Department of Agriculture, under Minister Walsh, made it one of the most efficient in the EU at getting payments to farmers. Walsh himself highlighted the formation of Bord Bia and the passing of the Animal Remedies Bill as key initiatives during his tenure — two measures which proved vital in the fight-back from BSE and the transformation from commodity trading to today’s food industry, with its near €10bn of annual exports.
Agreement was secured on 20 pieces of agriculture legislation in Ireland’s EU presidency in 2004, with Walsh as president of the Agriculture ministers council, leaving his mark particularly on application of the Common Agricultural Policy to the new member states, simplification of the CAP, and enhancing food safety standards.
Outside agriculture his huge influence ranged from his major role in forming the first FF-PD coalition in 1989, to the transformation of his home town, Clonakilty, to a thriving business and tourism town, a progress in which he took particular pride.
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